PUBLIC REASON REVISITED
Copyright (c) 1997 University of
Chicago Law Review
64 U. Chi. L. Rev. 765
LENGTH: 23159 words
ARTICLE: The Idea of Public Reason Revisited
John Rawls *
* Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Harvard University. This essay is a
revision of a lecture given at The University of
Chicago Law School in November 1993. I should like to thank Joshua Cohen, Erin Kelly,
Percy Lehning, Michael Perry, Margaret Rawls, and T.M. Scanlon for their great
help and advice in writing this paper. Throughout they have given me numerous
suggestions, which I have gladly accepted. Above all, to Burton Dreben I am
especially indebted: as so often before, he has been generous beyond measure in
his efforts; in every section he has helped me reorganize and reshape the text,
giving it a clarity and simplicity it would not otherwise have had. Without
their constant advice and encouragement, and that of others mentioned below, I
never could have completed the revisions of my original lecture.
... The idea of public reason, as I understand it, belongs to a conception of
a well ordered constitutional democratic society. ... This ideal is realized,
or satisfied, whenever judges, legislators, chief executives, and other
government officials, as well as candidates for public office, act from and
follow the idea of public reason and explain to other citizens their reasons
for supporting fundamental political positions in terms of the political
conception of justice they regard as the most reasonable. ... Since the idea
of public reason specifies at the deepest level the basic political values and
specifies how the political relation is to be understood, those who believe
that fundamental political questions should be decided by what they regard as
the best reasons according to their own idea of the whole truth - including
their religious or secular comprehensive doctrine - and not by reasons that
might be shared by all citizens as free and equal, will of course reject the
idea of public reason. ... As I have stressed throughout, it is central to
political liberalism that free and equal citizens affirm both a comprehensive
doctrine and a political conception. ... Since the criterion of reciprocity is
an essential ingredient specifying public reason and its content, political
liberalism rejects as unreasonable all such doctrines. ...
The idea of public reason, as I understand it,
n1 belongs to a conception of a well ordered constitutional democratic society.
The form and content of this reason - the way it is understood by citizens and
how it interprets their political relationship - is part of the idea of
democracy itself. This is because a basic feature of democracy is the fact of
reasonable pluralism - the fact that a
[*766] plurality of conflicting reasonable comprehensive doctrines,
n2 religious, philosophical, and moral, is the normal result of its culture of
n3 Citizens realize that they cannot reach agreement or even approach mutual
understanding on the basis of their irreconcilable comprehensive doctrines. In
view of this, they need to consider what kinds of reasons they may reasonably
give one another when fundamental political questions are at stake. I propose
that in public reason comprehensive doctrines of truth or right be replaced by
an idea of the politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens.
Central to the idea of public reason is that it neither criticizes nor attacks
any comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious, except insofar as that
doctrine is incompatible with the essentials of public reason and a democratic
polity. The basic requirement is that a reasonable doctrine accepts a
constitutional democratic regime and its companion idea of legitimate law.
While democratic societies will differ in the specific doctrines that are
influential and active within them - as they differ in the western democracies
of Europe and the United States, Israel, and India - finding a suitable idea of
public reason is a concern that faces them all.
The Idea of Public Reason
1. The idea of public reason specifies at the deepest level the basic moral
and political values that are to determine a constitutional democratic
government's relation to its citizens and their relation to one another. In
short, it concerns how the political relation is to be understood. Those who
reject constitutional democracy with its criterion of reciprocity
n5 will of course reject the very idea of public reason. For them the political
relation may be that of friend or foe, to those of a particular religious or
secular community or those who are not; or it may be a relentless struggle to
win the world for the whole truth. Political liberalism does
[*767] not engage those who think this way. The zeal to embody the whole truth in
politics is incompatible with an idea of public reason that belongs with
The idea of public reason has a definite structure, and if one or more of its
aspects are ignored it can seem implausible, as it does when applied to the
n6 It has five different aspects: (1) the fundamental political questions to
which it applies; (2) the persons to whom it applies (government officials and
candidates for public office); (3) its content as given by a family of
reasonable political conceptions of justice; (4) the application of these
conceptions in discussions of coercive norms to be enacted in the form of
legitimate law for a democratic people; and (5) citizens' checking that the
principles derived from their conceptions of justice satisfy the criterion of
Moreover, such reason is public in three ways: as the reason of free and equal
citizens, it is the reason of the public; its subject is the public good
concerning questions of fundamental political justice, which questions are of
two kinds, constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice;
n7 and its nature and content are public, being expressed in public reasoning by
a family of reasonable conceptions of political justice reasonably thought to
satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.
It is imperative to realize that the idea of public reason does not apply to
all political discussions of fundamental questions, but only to discussions of
those questions in what I refer to as the public political forum.
n8 This forum may be divided into three parts: the discourse of judges in their
decisions, and especially of the judges of a supreme court; the discourse of
government officials, especially chief executives and legislators; and finally,
the discourse of candidates for public office and their campaign managers,
especially in their public oratory, party platforms, and political statements.
n9 We need this three-part division because, as I note later, the idea of public
reason does not apply in the same
[*768] way in these three cases and elsewhere.
n10 In discussing what I call the wide view of public political culture,
n11 we shall see that the idea of public reason applies more strictly to judges
than to others, but that the requirements of public justification for that
reason are always the same.
Distinct and separate from this three-part public political forum is what I
call the background culture.
n12 This is the culture of civil society. In a democracy, this culture is not, of
course, guided by any one central idea or principle, whether political or
religious. Its many and diverse agencies and associations with their internal
life reside within a framework of law that ensures the familiar liberties of
thought and speech, and the right of free association.
n13 The idea of public reason does not apply to the background culture with its
many forms of nonpublic reason nor to media of any kind.
n14 Sometimes those who appear to reject the idea of public reason actually mean
to assert the need for full and open discussion in the background culture.
n15 With this political liberalism fully agrees.
Finally, distinct from the idea of public reason, as set out by the five
features above, is the ideal of public reason. This ideal is realized, or
satisfied, whenever judges, legislators, chief execu-
[*769] tives, and other government officials, as well as candidates for public
office, act from and follow the idea of public reason and explain to other
citizens their reasons for supporting fundamental political positions in terms
of the political conception of justice they regard as the most reasonable. In
this way they fulfill what I shall call their duty of civility to one another
and to other citizens. Hence, whether judges, legislators, and chief executives
act from and follow public reason is continually shown in their speech and
conduct on a daily basis.
How though is the ideal of public reason realized by citizens who are not
government officials? In a representative government citizens vote for
representatives - chief executives, legislators, and the like - and not for
particular laws (except at a state or local level when they may vote directly
on referenda questions, which are rarely fundamental questions). To answer this
question, we say that ideally citizens are to think of themselves as if they
were legislators and ask themselves what statutes, supported by what reasons
satisfying the criterion of reciprocity, they would think it most reasonable to
n16 When firm and widespread, the disposition of citizens to view themselves as
ideal legislators, and to repudiate government officials and candidates for
public office who violate public reason, is one of the political and social
roots of democracy, and is vital to its enduring strength and vigor.
n17 Thus citizens fulfill their duty of civility and support the idea of public
reason by doing what they can to hold government officials to it. This duty,
like other political rights and duties, is an intrinsically moral duty. I
emphasize that it is not a legal duty, for in that case it would be
incompatible with freedom of speech.
2. I now turn to a discussion of what I have labeled the third, fourth, and
fifth aspects of public reason. The idea of public reason arises from a
conception of democratic citizenship in a constitutional democracy. This
fundamental political relation of citizenship has two special features: first,
it is a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, a structure
we enter only by birth and exit only by death;
n18 and second, it is a relation of free
[*770] and equal citizens who exercise ultimate political power as a collective body.
These two features immediately give rise to the question of how, when
constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake, citizens
so related can be bound to honor the structure of their constitutional
democratic regime and abide by the statutes and laws enacted under it. The fact
of reasonable pluralism raises this question all the more sharply, since it
means that the differences between citizens arising from their comprehensive
doctrines, religious and nonreligious, may be irreconcilable. By what ideals
and principles, then, are citizens who share equally in ultimate political
power to exercise that power so that each can reasonably justify his or her
political decisions to everyone?
To answer this question we say: Citizens are reasonable when, viewing one
another as free and equal in a system of social cooperation over generations,
they are prepared to offer one another fair terms of cooperation according to
what they consider the most reasonable conception of political justice; and
when they agree to act on those terms, even at the cost of their own interests
in particular situations, provided that other citizens also accept those terms.
The criterion of reciprocity requires that when those terms are proposed as the
most reasonable terms of fair cooperation, those proposing them must also think
it at least reasonable for others to accept them, as free and equal citizens,
and not as dominated or manipulated, or under the pressure of an inferior
political or social position.
n19 Citizens will of course differ as to which conceptions of political justice
they think the most reasonable, but they will agree that all are reasonable,
even if barely so.
Thus when, on a constitutional essential or matter of basic justice, all
appropriate government officials act from and follow public reason, and when
all reasonable citizens think of themselves ideally as if they were legislators
following public reason, the legal enactment expressing the opinion of the
majority is legitimate law. It may not be thought the most reasonable, or the
most appropriate, by each, but it is politically (morally) binding on him or
her as a citizen and is to be accepted as such. Each thinks that all have
spoken and voted at least reasonably, and
[*771] therefore all have followed public reason and honored their duty of civility.
Hence the idea of political legitimacy based on the criterion of reciprocity
says: Our exercise of political power is proper only when we sincerely believe
that the reasons we would offer for our political actions - were we to state
them as government officials - are sufficient, and we also reasonably think
that other citizens might also reasonably accept those reasons. This criterion
applies on two levels: one is to the constitutional structure itself, the other
is to particular statutes and laws enacted in accordance with that structure.
To be reasonable, political conceptions must justify only constitutions that
satisfy this principle.
To make more explicit the role of the criterion of reciprocity as expressed in
public reason, note that its role is to specify the nature of the political
relation in a constitutional democratic regime as one of civic friendship. For
this criterion, when government officers act from it in their public reasoning
and other citizens support it, shapes the form of their fundamental
institutions. For example - I cite an easy case - if we argue that the
religious liberty of some citizens is to be denied, we must give them reasons
they can not only understand - as Servetus could understand why Calvin wanted
to burn him at the stake - but reasons we might reasonably expect that they, as
free and equal citizens, might reasonably also accept. The criterion of
reciprocity is normally violated whenever basic liberties are denied. For what
reasons can both satisfy the criterion of reciprocity and justify denying to
some persons religious liberty, holding others as slaves, imposing a property
qualification on the right to vote, or denying the right of suffrage to women?
Since the idea of public reason specifies at the deepest level the basic
political values and specifies how the political relation is to be understood,
those who believe that fundamental political questions should be decided by
what they regard as the best reasons according to their own idea of the whole
truth - including their religious or secular comprehensive doctrine - and not
by reasons that might be shared by all citizens as free and equal, will of
course reject the idea of public reason. Political liberalism views this
insistence on the whole truth in politics as incompatible with democratic
citizenship and the idea of legitimate law.
3. Democracy has a long history, from its beginning in classical Greece down
to the present day, and there are many different ideas of democracy.
n20 Here I am concerned only with a well or-
[*772] dered constitutional democracy - a term I used at the outset - understood also
as a deliberative democracy. The definitive idea for deliberative democracy is
the idea of deliberation itself. When citizens deliberate, they exchange views
and debate their supporting reasons concerning public political questions. They
suppose that their political opinions may be revised by discussion with other
citizens; and therefore these opinions are not simply a fixed outcome of their
existing private or nonpolitical interests. It is at this point that public
reason is crucial, for it characterizes such citizens' reasoning concerning
constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. While I cannot fully
discuss the nature of deliberative democracy here, I note a few key points to
indicate the wider place and role of public reason.
There are three essential elements of deliberative democracy. One is an idea
of public reason,
n21 although not all such ideas are the same. A second is a framework of
constitutional democratic institutions that specifies the setting for
deliberative legislative bodies. The third is the knowledge and desire on the
part of citizens generally to follow public reason and to realize its ideal in
their political conduct. Immediate implications of these essentials are the
public financing of elections, and the providing for public occasions of
orderly and serious discussion of fundamental questions and issues of public
policy. Public deliberation must be made possible, recognized as a basic
feature of democracy, and set free from the curse of money.
n22 Otherwise politics is dominated by corporate and other organized interests who
[*773] through large contributions to campaigns distort if not preclude public
discussion and deliberation.
Deliberative democracy also recognizes that without widespread education in
the basic aspects of constitutional democratic government for all citizens, and
without a public informed about pressing problems, crucial political and social
decisions simply cannot be made. Even should farsighted political leaders wish
to make sound changes and reforms, they cannot convince a misinformed and
cynical public to accept and follow them. For example, there are sensible
proposals for what should be done regarding the alleged coming crisis in Social
Security: slow down the growth of benefits levels, gradually raise the
retirement age, impose limits on expensive terminal medical care that prolongs
life for only a few weeks or days, and finally, raise taxes now, rather than
face large increases later.
n23 But as things are, those who follow the
"great game of politics" know that none of these sensible proposals will be accepted. The same story
can be told about the importance of support for international institutions
(such as the United Nations), foreign aid properly spent, and concern for human
rights at home and abroad. In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns,
the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are
The Content of Public Reason
1. A citizen engages in public reason, then, when he or she deliberates within
a framework of what he or she sincerely regards as the most reasonable
political conception of justice, a conception that expresses political values
that others, as free and equal citizens might also reasonably be expected
reasonably to endorse. Each of us must have principles and guidelines to which
we appeal in such a way that this criterion is satisfied. I have proposed that
one way to identify those political principles and guidelines is to show that
they would be agreed to in what in Political Liberalism is called the original
n24 Others will think that different ways to identify these principles are more
Thus, the content of public reason is given by a family of political
conceptions of justice, and not by a single one. There are
[*774] many liberalisms and related views, and therefore many forms of public reason
specified by a family of reasonable political conceptions. Of these, justice as
fairness, whatever its merits, is but one. The limiting feature of these forms
is the criterion of reciprocity, viewed as applied between free and equal
citizens, themselves seen as reasonable and rational. Three main features
characterize these conceptions:
First, a list of certain basic rights, liberties, and opportunities (such as
those familiar from constitutional regimes);
Second, an assignment of special priority to those rights, liberties, and
opportunities, especially with respect to the claims of the general good and
perfectionist values; and
Third, measures ensuring for all citizens adequate all-purpose means to make
effective use of their freedoms.
Each of these liberalisms endorses the underlying ideas of citizens as free
and equal persons and of society as a fair system of cooperation over time. Yet
since these ideas can be interpreted in various ways, we get different
formulations of the principles of justice and different contents of public
reason. Political conceptions differ also in how they order, or balance,
political principles and values even when they specify the same ones. I assume
also that these liberalisms contain substantive principles of justice, and
hence cover more than procedural justice. They are required to specify the
religious liberties and freedoms of artistic expression of equal citizens, as
well as substantive ideas of fairness involving fair opportunity and ensuring
adequate all-purpose means, and much else.
Political liberalism, then, does not try to fix public reason once and for all
in the form of one favored political conception of justice.
n27 That would not be a sensible approach. For instance, political liberalism also
admits Habermas's discourse conception
[*775] of legitimacy (sometimes said to be radically democratic rather than liberal),
n28 as well as Catholic views of the common good and solidarity when they are
expressed in terms of political values.
n29 Even if relatively few conceptions come to dominate over time, and one
conception even appears to have a special central place, the forms of
permissible public reason are always several. Moreover, new variations may be
proposed from time to time and older ones may cease to be represented. It is
important that this be so; otherwise the claims of groups or interests arising
from social change might be repressed and fail to gain their appropriate
2. We must distinguish public reason from what is sometimes referred to as
secular reason and secular values. These are not the same as public reason. For
I define secular reason as reasoning in terms of comprehensive nonreligious
doctrines. Such doctrines and values are much too broad to serve the purposes
of public reason. Political values are not moral doctrines,
n31 however available or accessible these may be to our reason and common sense
reflection. Moral doctrines are on a level with religion and
[*776] first philosophy. By contrast, liberal political principles and values,
although intrinsically moral values, are specified by liberal political
conceptions of justice and fall under the category of the political. These
political conceptions have three features:
First, their principles apply to basic political and social institutions (the
basic structure of society);
Second, they can be presented independently from comprehensive doctrines of any
kind (although they may, of course, be supported by a reasonable overlapping
consensus of such doctrines); and
Finally, they can be worked out from fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the
public political culture of a constitutional regime, such as the conceptions of
citizens as free and equal persons, and of society as a fair system of
Thus, the content of public reason is given by the principles and values of
the family of liberal political conceptions of justice meeting these
conditions. To engage in public reason is to appeal to one of these political
conceptions - to their ideals and principles, standards and values - when
debating fundamental political questions. This requirement still allows us to
introduce into political discussion at any time our comprehensive doctrine,
religious or nonreligious, provided that, in due course, we give properly
public reasons to support the principles and policies our comprehensive
doctrine is said to support. I refer to this requirement as the proviso, and
consider it in detail below.
A feature of public reasoning, then, is that it proceeds entirely within a
political conception of justice. Examples of political values include those
mentioned in the preamble to the United States Constitution: a more perfect
union, justice, domestic tranquillity, the common defense, the general welfare,
and the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. These include
under them other values: so, for example, under justice we also have equal
basic liberties, equality of opportunity, ideals concerning the distribution of
income and taxation, and much else.
The political values of public reason are distinct from other values in that
they are realized in and characterize political institutions. This does not
mean that analogous values cannot characterize other social forms. The values
of effectiveness and efficiency may characterize the social organization of
teams and clubs, as well as the political institutions of the basic structure of
[*777] society. But a value is properly political only when the social form is itself
political: when it is realized, say, in parts of the basic structure and its
political and social institutions. It follows that many political conceptions
are nonliberal, including those of aristocracy and corporate oligarchy, and of
autocracy and dictatorship. All of these fall within the category of the
n33 We, however, are concerned only with those political conceptions that are
reasonable for a constitutional democratic regime, and as the preceding
paragraphs make clear, these are the ideals and principles expressed by
reasonable liberal political conceptions.
3. Another essential feature of public reason is that its political
conceptions should be complete. This means that each conception should express
principles, standards, and ideals, along with guidelines of inquiry, such that
the values specified by it can be suitably ordered or otherwise united so that
those values alone give a reasonable answer to all, or to nearly all, questions
involving constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice. Here the
ordering of values is made in the light of their structure and features within
the political conception itself, and not primarily from how they occur within
citizens' comprehensive doctrines. Political values are not to be ordered by
viewing them separately and detached from one another or from any definite
context. They are not puppets manipulated from behind the scenes by
n34 The ordering is not distorted by those doctrines provided that public reason
sees the ordering as reasonable. And public reason can indeed see an ordering
of political values as reasonable (or unreasonable), since institutional
structures are open to view and mistakes and gaps within the political ordering
will become exposed. Thus, we may be confident that the ordering of political
values is not distorted by particular reasonable comprehensive doctrines. (I
emphasize that the only criterion of distortion is that the ordering of
political values be itself unreasonable.)
The significance of completeness lies in the fact that unless a political
conception is complete, it is not an adequate framework of thought in the light
of which the discussion of fundamental political questions can be carried out.
n35 What we cannot do in
[*778] public reason is to proceed directly from our comprehensive doctrine, or a
part thereof, to one or several political principles and values, and the
particular institutions they support. Instead, we are required first to work to
the basic ideas of a complete political conception and from there to elaborate
its principles and ideals, and to use the arguments they provide. Otherwise
public reason allows arguments that are too immediate and fragmentary.
4. I now note several examples of political principles and values to
illustrate the more specific content of public reason, and particularly the
various ways in which the criterion of reciprocity is both applicable and
subject to violation.
(a) As a first example, consider the value of autonomy. It may take two forms:
one is political autonomy, the legal independence and assured integrity of
citizens and their sharing equally with others in the exercise of political
power; the other is purely moral and characterizes a certain way of life and
reflection, critically examining our deepest ends and ideals, as in Mill's
ideal of individuality.
n36 Whatever we may think of autonomy as a purely moral value, it fails to
satisfy, given reasonable pluralism, the constraint of reciprocity, as many
citizens, for example, those holding certain religious doctrines, may reject
it. Thus moral autonomy is not a political value, whereas political autonomy is.
(b) As a second example, consider the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.
Are the values appealed to properly political values and not simply religious
or philosophical values? While the wide view of public political culture allows
us, in making a proposal, to introduce the Gospel story, public reason requires
us to justify our proposal in terms of proper political values.
(c) As a third example, consider appeals to desert in discussing the fair
distribution of income: people are wont to say
[*779] that ideally distribution should be in accordance with desert. What sense of
desert do they have in mind? Do they mean that persons in various offices
should have the requisite qualifications - judges must be qualified to judge -
and all should have a fair opportunity to qualify themselves for favored
positions? That is indeed a political value. But distribution in accordance
with moral desert, where this means the moral worth of character, all things
considered, and including comprehensive doctrines, is not. It is not a feasible
political and social aim.
(d) Finally, consider the state's interest in the family and human life. How
should the political value invoked be specified correctly? Traditionally it has
been specified very broadly. But in a democratic regime the government's
legitimate interest is that public law and policy should support and regulate,
in an ordered way, the institutions needed to reproduce political society over
time. These include the family (in a form that is just), arrangements for
rearing and educating children, and institutions of public health generally.
This ordered support and regulation rests on political principles and values,
since political society is regarded as existing in perpetuity and so as
maintaining itself and its institutions and culture over generations. Given
this interest, the government would appear to have no interest in the
particular form of family life, or of relations among the sexes, except insofar
as that form or those relations in some way affect the orderly reproduction of
society over time. Thus, appeals to monogamy as such, or against same-sex
marriages, as within the government's legitimate interest in the family, would
reflect religious or comprehensive moral doctrines. Accordingly, that interest
would appear improperly specified. Of course, there may be other political
values in the light of which such a specification would pass muster: for
example, if monogamy were necessary for the equality of women, or same-sex
marriages destructive to the raising and educating of children.
5. The four examples bring out a contrast to what I have above called secular
n39 A view often expressed is that while religious reasons and sectarian doctrines
should not be invoked to justify legislation in a democratic society, sound
secular arguments may be.
n40 But what is a secular argument? Some
[*780] think of any argument that is reflective and critical, publicly intelligible
and rational, as a secular argument; and they discuss various such arguments
for considering, say, homosexual relations unworthy or degrading.
n41 Of course, some of these arguments may be reflective and rational secular ones
(as so defined). Nevertheless, a central feature of political liberalism is
that it views all such arguments the same way it views religious ones, and
therefore these secular philosophical doctrines do not provide public reasons.
Secular concepts and reasoning of this kind belong to first philosophy and
moral doctrine, and fall outside of the domain of the political.
Thus, in considering whether to make homosexual relations between citizens
criminal offenses, the question is not whether those relations are precluded by
a worthy idea of full human good as characterized by a sound philosophical and
nonreligious view, nor whether those of religious faith regard it as sin, but
primarily whether legislative statutes forbidding those relations infringe the
civil rights of free and equal democratic citizens.
n42 This question calls for a reasonable political conception of justice
specifying those civil rights, which are always a matter of constitutional
Religion and Public Reason in Democracy
1. Before examining the idea of the wide view of public political culture, we
ask: How is it possible for those holding religious doctrines, some based on
religious authority, for example, the Church or the Bible, to hold at the same
time a reasonable political conception that supports a reasonable
constitutional democratic regime? Can these doctrines still be compatible for
the right reasons with a liberal political conception? To attain this
compatibility, it is not sufficient that these doctrines accept a democratic
government merely as a modus vivendi. Referring to citizens holding religious
doctrines as citizens of faith we ask:
[*781] How is it possible for citizens of faith to be wholehearted members of a
democratic society who endorse society's intrinsic political ideals and values
and do not simply acquiesce in the balance of political and social forces?
Expressed more sharply: How is it possible - or is it - for those of faith, as
well as the nonreligious (secular), to endorse a constitutional regime even
when their comprehensive doctrines may not prosper under it, and indeed may
decline? This last question brings out anew the significance of the idea of
legitimacy and public reason's role in determining legitimate law.
To clarify the question, consider two examples. The first is that of Catholics
and Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the principle
of toleration was honored only as a modus vivendi.
n43 This meant that should either party fully gain its way it would impose its own
religious doctrine as the sole admissible faith. A society in which many faiths
all share this attitude and assume that for the indefinite future their
relative numbers will stay roughly the same might well have a constitution
resembling that of the United States, fully protecting the religious liberties
of sharply divided religions more or less equal in political power. The
constitution is, as it were, honored as a pact to maintain civil peace.
n44 In this society political issues might be discussed in terms of political
ideas and values so as not to open religious conflict and arouse sectarian
hostility. The role of public reason here serves merely to quiet divisiveness
and encourage social stability. However, in this case we do not have stability
for the right reasons, that is, as secured by a firm allegiance to a democratic
society's political (moral) ideals and values.
Nor again do we have stability for the right reasons in the second example - a
democratic society where citizens accept as political (moral) principles the
substantive constitutional clauses that ensure religious, political, and civil
liberties, when their allegiance to these constitutional principles is so
limited that none is willing to see his or her religious or nonreligious
doctrine losing ground in influence and numbers, and such citizens are prepared
to resist or to disobey laws that they think undermine their positions. And
they do this even though the full range of religious and other liberties is
always maintained and the doctrine
[*782] in question is completely secure. Here again democracy is accepted
conditionally and not for the right reasons.
What these examples have in common is that society is divided into separate
groups, each of which has its own fundamental interest distinct from and
opposed to the interests of the other groups and for which it is prepared to
resist or to violate legitimate democratic law. In the first example, it is the
interest of a religion in establishing its hegemony, while in the second, it is
the doctrine's fundamental interest in maintaining a certain degree of success
and influence for its own view, either religious or nonreligious. While a
constitutional regime can fully ensure rights and liberties for all permissible
doctrines, and therefore protect our freedom and security, a democracy
necessarily requires that, as one equal citizen among others, each of us accept
the obligations of legitimate law.
n45 While no one is expected to put his or her religious or nonreligious doctrine
in danger, we must each give up forever the hope of changing the constitution
so as to establish our religion's hegemony, or of qualifying our obligations so
as to ensure its influence and success. To retain such hopes and aims would be
inconsistent with the idea of equal basic liberties for all free and equal
2. To expand on what we asked earlier: How is it possible - or is it - for
those of faith, as well as the nonreligious (secular), to endorse a
constitutional regime even when their comprehensive doctrines may not prosper
under it, and indeed may decline? Here the answer lies in the religious or
nonreligious doctrine's understanding and accepting that, except by endorsing a
reasonable constitutional democracy, there is no other way fairly to ensure the
liberty of its adherents consistent with the equal liberties of other
reasonable free and equal citizens. In endorsing a constitutional democratic
regime, a religious doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our
liberty; a nonreligious doctrine will express itself otherwise.
n46 But in either case, these
[*783] doctrines formulate in different ways how liberty of conscience and the
principle of toleration can cohere with equal justice for all citizens in a
reasonable democratic society. Thus, the principles of toleration and liberty
of conscience must have an essential place in any constitutional democratic
conception. They lay down the fundamental basis to be accepted by all citizens
as fair and regulative of the rivalry between doctrines.
Observe here that there are two ideas of toleration. One is purely political,
being expressed in terms of the rights and duties protecting religious liberty
in accordance with a reasonable political conception of justice. The other is
not purely political but expressed from within a religious or a nonreligious
doctrine, as when, for example, it was said above that such are the limits God
sets on our liberty. Saying this offers an example of what I call reasoning
n47 In this case we reason from what we believe, or conjecture, may be other
people's basic doctrines, religious or philosophical, and seek to show them
that, despite what they might think, they can still endorse a reasonable
political conception of justice. We are not ourselves asserting that ground of
toleration but offering it as one they could assert consistent with their
The Wide View of Public Political Culture
1. Now we consider what I call the wide view of public political culture and
discuss two aspects of it. The first is that reasonable comprehensive
doctrines, religious or nonreligious, may be
[*784] introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due
course proper political reasons - and not reasons given solely by comprehensive
doctrines - are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the
comprehensive doctrines introduced are said to support. This injunction to
present proper political reasons I refer to as the proviso, and it specifies
public political culture as distinct from the background culture.
n48 The second aspect I consider is that there may be positive reasons for
introducing comprehensive doctrines into public political discussion. I take up
these two aspects in turn.
Obviously, many questions may be raised about how to satisfy the proviso.
n49 One is: when does it need to be satisfied? On the same day or some later day?
Also, on whom does the obligation to honor it fall? It is important that it be
clear and established that the proviso is to be appropriately satisfied in good
faith. Yet the details about how to satisfy this proviso must be worked out in
practice and cannot feasibly be governed by a clear family of rules given in
advance. How they work out is determined by the nature of the public political
culture and calls for good sense and understanding. It is important also to
observe that the introduction into public political culture of religious and
secular doctrines, provided the proviso is met, does not change the nature and
content of justification in public reason itself. This justification is still
given in terms of a family of reasonable political conceptions of justice.
However, there are no restrictions or requirements on how religious or secular
doctrines are themselves to be expressed; these doctrines need not, for
example, be by some standards logically correct, or open to rational appraisal,
or evidentially supportable.
n50 Whether they are or not is a matter to be decided by those presenting them,
and how they want what they say to be taken. They will normally have practical
reasons for wanting to make their views acceptable to a broader audience.
2. Citizens' mutual knowledge of one another's religious and nonreligious
doctrines expressed in the wide view of public political culture
n51 recognizes that the roots of democratic citizens' allegiance to their
political conceptions lie in their respective com-
[*785] prehensive doctrines, both religious and nonreligious. In this way citizens'
allegiance to the democratic ideal of public reason is strengthened for the
right reasons. We may think of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines that
support society's reasonable political conceptions as those conceptions' vital
social basis, giving them enduring strength and vigor. When these doctrines
accept the proviso and only then come into political debate, the commitment to
constitutional democracy is publicly manifested.
n52 Made aware of this commitment, government officials and citizens are more
willing to honor the duty of civility, and their following the ideal of public
reason helps foster the kind of society that ideal exemplifies. These benefits
of the mutual knowledge of citizens' recognizing one another's reasonable
comprehensive doctrines bring out a positive ground for introducing such
doctrines, which is not merely a defensive ground, as if their intrusion into
public discussion were inevitable in any case.
Consider, for example, a highly contested political issue - the issue of
public support for church schools.
n53 Those on different sides are likely to come to doubt one another's allegiance
to basic constitutional and political values. It is wise, then, for all sides
to introduce their comprehensive doctrines, whether religious or secular, so as
to open the way for them to explain to one another how their views do indeed
support those basic political values. Consider also the Abolitionists and those
in the Civil Rights Movement.
n54 The proviso was fulfilled in their cases, however
[*786] much they emphasized the religious roots of their doctrines, because these
doctrines supported basic constitutional values - as they themselves asserted -
and so supported reasonable conceptions of political justice.
3. Public reasoning aims for public justification. We appeal to political
conceptions of justice, and to ascertainable evidence and facts open to public
view, in order to reach conclusions about what we think are the most reasonable
political institutions and policies. Public justification is not simply valid
reasoning, but argument addressed to others: it proceeds correctly from
premises we accept and think others could reasonably accept to conclusions we
think they could also reasonably accept. This meets the duty of civility, since
in due course the proviso is satisfied.
There are two other forms of discourse that may also be mentioned, though
neither expresses a form of public reasoning. One is declaration: here we each
declare our own comprehensive doctrine, religious or nonreligious. This we do
not expect others to share. Rather, each of us shows how, from our own
doctrines, we can and do endorse a reasonable public political conception of
justice with its principles and ideals. The aim of doing this is to declare to
others who affirm different comprehensive doctrines that we also each endorse a
reasonable political conception belonging to the family of reasonable such
conceptions. On the wide view, citizens of faith who cite the Gospel parable of
the Good Samaritan do not stop there, but go on to give a public justification
for this parable's conclusions in terms of political values.
n55 In this way citizens who hold different doctrines are reassured, and this
strengthens the ties of civic friendship.
The second form is conjecture, defined thus: we argue from what we believe, or
conjecture, are other people's basic doctrines, religious or secular, and try
to show them that, despite what they might think, they can still endorse a
reasonable political conception that can provide a basis for public reasons.
The ideal of pub-
[*787] lic reason is thereby strengthened. However, it is important that conjecture
be sincere and not manipulative. We must openly explain our intentions and
state that we do not assert the premises from which we argue, but that we
proceed as we do to clear up what we take to be a misunderstanding on others'
part, and perhaps equally on ours.
On the Family as Part of the Basic Structure
1. To illustrate further the use and scope of public reason, I shall now
consider a range of questions about a single institution, the family.
n58 I do this by using a particular political conception of justice and looking at
the role that it assigns to the family in the basic structure of society. Since
the content of public reason is determined by all the reasonable political
conceptions that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity, the range of questions
about the family covered by this political conception will indicate the ample
space for debate and argument comprehended by public reason as a whole.
The family is part of the basic structure, since one of its main roles is to
be the basis of the orderly production and reproduction of society and its
culture from one generation to the next. Political society is always regarded
as a scheme of social cooperation over time indefinitely; the idea of a future
time when its affairs are to be concluded and society disbanded is foreign to
the conception of political society. Thus, reproductive labor is socially
necessary labor. Accepting this, a central role of the family is to arrange in
a reasonable and effective way the raising of and caring for children, ensuring
their moral development and education into the wider culture.
n59 Citizens must have a sense of justice and the political virtues that support
political and social institutions. The family must ensure the nurturing and
development of such citizens in appropriate numbers to maintain an enduring
These requirements limit all arrangements of the basic structure, including
efforts to achieve equality of opportunity. The family imposes constraints on
ways in which this goal can be achieved, and the principles of justice are
stated to try to take these constraints into account. I cannot pursue these
complexities here, but assume that as children we grow up in a small intimate
group in which elders (normally parents) have a certain moral and social
2. In order for public reason to apply to the family, it must be seen, in part
at least, as a matter for political justice. It may be thought that this is not
so, that the principles of justice do not apply to the family and hence those
principles do not secure equal justice for women and their children.
n61 This is a misconception. It may arise as follows: the primary subject of
political justice is the basic structure of society understood as the
arrangement of society's main institutions into a unified system of social
cooperation over time. The principles of political justice are to apply
directly to this structure, but are not to apply directly to the internal life
of the many associations within it, the family among them. Thus, some may think
that if those principles do
[*789] not apply directly to the internal life of families, they cannot ensure equal
justice for wives along with their husbands.
Much the same question arises in regard to all associations, whether they be
churches or universities, professional or scientific associations, business
firms or labor unions. The family is not peculiar in this respect. To
illustrate: it is clear that liberal principles of political justice do not
require ecclesiastical governance to be democratic. Bishops and cardinals need
not be elected; nor need the benefits attached to a church's hierarchy of
offices satisfy a specified distributive principle, certainly not the
n62 This shows how the principles of political justice do not apply to the
internal life of a church, nor is it desirable, or consistent with liberty of
conscience or freedom of association, that they should.
On the other hand, the principles of political justice do impose certain
essential constraints that bear on ecclesiastical governance. Churches cannot
practice effective intolerance, since, as the principles of justice require,
public law does not recognize heresy and apostasy as crimes, and members of
churches are always at liberty to leave their faith. Thus, although the
principles of justice do not apply directly to the internal life of churches,
they do protect the rights and liberties of their members by the constraints to
which all churches and associations are subject. This is not to deny that there
are appropriate conceptions of justice that do apply directly to most if not
all associations and groups, as well as to various kinds of relationships among
individuals. Yet these conceptions of justice are not political conceptions. In
each case, what is the appropriate conception is a separate and additional
question, to be considered anew in each particular instance, given the nature
and role of the relevant association, group, or relation.
Now consider the family. Here the idea is the same: political principles do
not apply directly to its internal life, but they do impose essential
constraints on the family as an institution and so guarantee the basic rights
and liberties, and the freedom and opportunities, of all its members. This they
do, as I have said, by specifying the basic rights of equal citizens who are
the members of families. The family as part of the basic structure cannot
violate these freedoms. Since wives are equally citizens with their husbands,
they have all the same basic rights, liberties, and opportunities as their
husbands; and this, together with the correct
[*790] application of the other principles of justice, suffices to secure their
equality and independence.
To put the case another way, we distinguish between the point of view of
people as citizens and their point of view as members of families and of other
n63 As citizens we have reasons to impose the constraints specified by the
political principles of justice on associations; while as members of
associations we have reasons for limiting those constraints so that they leave
room for a free and flourishing internal life appropriate to the association in
question. Here again we see the need for the division of labor between
different kinds of principles. We wouldn't want political principles of justice
- including principles of distributive justice - to apply directly to the
internal life of the family.
These principles do not inform us how to raise our children, and we are not
required to treat our children in accordance with political principles. Here
those principles are out of place. Surely parents must follow some conception
of justice (or fairness) and due respect with regard to their children, but,
within certain limits, this is not for political principles to prescribe.
Clearly the prohibition of abuse and neglect of children, and much else, will,
as constraints, be a vital part of family law. But at some point society has to
rely on the natural affection and goodwill of the mature family members.
Just as the principles of justice require that wives have all the rights of
citizens, the principles of justice impose constraints on the family on behalf
of children who as society's future citizens have basic rights as such. A long
and historic injustice to women is that they have borne, and continue to bear,
an unjust share of the task of raising, nurturing, and caring for their
children. When they are even further disadvantaged by the laws regulating
divorce, this burden makes them highly vulnerable. These injustices bear
harshly not only on women but also on their children; and they tend to
undermine children's capacity to acquire the political virtues required of
future citizens in a viable democratic society. Mill held that the family in
his day was a school for male despotism: it inculcated habits of thought and
ways of feeling and conduct incompatible with democracy.
n65 If so,
[*791] the principles of justice enjoining a reasonable constitutional democratic
society can plainly be invoked to reform the family.
3. More generally, when political liberalism distinguishes between political
justice that applies to the basic structure and other conceptions of justice
that apply to the various associations within that structure, it does not
regard the political and the nonpolitical domains as two separate, disconnected
spaces, each governed solely by its own distinct principles. Even if the basic
structure alone is the primary subject of justice, the principles of justice
still put essential restrictions on the family and all other associations. The
adult members of families and other associations are equal citizens first: that
is their basic position. No institution or association in which they are
involved can violate their rights as citizens.
A domain so-called, or a sphere of life, is not, then, something already given
apart from political conceptions of justice. A domain is not a kind of space,
or place, but rather is simply the result, or upshot, of how the principles of
political justice are applied, directly to the basic structure and indirectly
to the associations within it. The principles defining the equal basic
liberties and opportunities of citizens always hold in and through all
so-called domains. The equal rights of women and the basic rights of their
children as future citizens are inalienable and protect them wherever they are.
Gender distinctions limiting those rights and liberties are excluded.
n66 So the spheres of the political and the public, of the nonpublic and the
private, fall out from the content and application of the conception of justice
and its principles. If the so-called private sphere is alleged to be a space
exempt from justice, then there is no such thing.
The basic structure is a single social system, each part of which may
influence the rest. Its basic principles of political justice specify all its
main parts and its basic rights reach throughout. The family is only one part
(though a major part) of the system that produces a social division of labor
based on gender over time. Some have argued that discrimination against women
in the marketplace is the key to the historical gendered division of labor in
the family. The resulting wage differences between the genders make it
economically sensible that mothers spend more time with their children than
fathers do. On the other hand, some believe that the family itself is the
n67 of gender in-
[*792] justice. However, a liberal conception of justice may have to allow for some
traditional gendered division of labor within families - assume, say, that this
division is based on religion - provided it is fully voluntary and does not
result from or lead to injustice. To say that this division of labor is in this
case fully voluntary means that it is adopted by people on the basis of their
religion, which from a political point of view is voluntary,
n68 and not because various other forms of discrimination elsewhere in the social
system make it rational and less costly for husband and wife to follow a
gendered division of labor in the family.
Some want a society in which division of labor by gender is reduced to a
minimum. But for political liberalism, this cannot mean that such division is
forbidden. One cannot propose that equal division of labor in the family be
simply mandated, or its absence in some way penalized at law for those who do
not adopt it. This is ruled out because the division of labor in question is
connected with basic liberties, including the freedom of religion. Thus, to try
to minimize gendered division of labor means, in political liberalism, to try
to reach a social condition in which the remaining division of labor is
voluntary. This allows in principle that considerable gendered division of
labor may persist. It is only involuntary division of labor that is to be
reduced to zero.
Hence the family is a crucial case for seeing whether the single system - the
basic structure - affords equal justice to both men and women. If the gendered
division of labor in the family is indeed fully voluntary, then there is reason
to think that the single system realizes fair equality of opportunity for both
4. Since a democracy aims for full equality for all its citizens, and so of
women, it must include arrangements to achieve it. If a basic, if not the main,
cause of women's inequality is their greater share in the bearing, nurturing,
and caring for children in the traditional division of labor within the family,
steps need to be taken either to equalize their share, or to compensate them
[*793] for it.
n69 How best to do this in particular historical conditions is not for political
philosophy to decide. But a now common proposal is that as a norm or guideline,
the law should count a wife's work in raising children (when she bears that
burden as is still common) as entitling her to an equal share in the income
that her husband earns during their marriage. Should there be a divorce, she
should have an equal share in the increased value of the family's assets during
Any departure from this norm would require a special and clear justification.
It seems intolerably unjust that a husband may depart the family taking his
earning power with him and leaving his wife and children far less advantaged
than before. Forced to fend for themselves, their economic position is often
precarious. A society that permits this does not care about women, much less
about their equality, or even about their children, who are its future.
The crucial question may be what precisely is covered by gender-structured
institutions. How are their lines drawn? If we say the gender system includes
whatever social arrangements adversely affect the equal basic liberties and
opportunities of women, as well as those of their children as future citizens,
then surely that system is subject to critique by the principles of justice.
The question then becomes whether the fulfillment of these principles suffices
to remedy the gender system's faults. The remedy depends in part on social
theory and human psychology, and much else. It cannot be settled by a
conception of justice alone.
In concluding these remarks on the family, I should say that I have not tried
to argue fully for particular conclusions. Rather, to repeat, I have simply
wanted to illustrate how a political conception of justice and its ordering of
political values apply to a single institution of the basic structure and can
cover many (if not all) of its various aspects. As I have said, these values
are given an order within the particular political conception to which they are
n70 Among these values are the freedom and equality of women, the equality of
children as future citizens, the freedom of religion, and finally, the value of
the family in securing the orderly production and reproduction of society and
of its culture from one generation to the next. These values provide
[*794] public reasons for all citizens. So much is claimed not only for justice as
fairness but for any reasonable political conception.
Questions About Public Reason
I now turn to various questions and doubts about the idea of public reason and
try to allay them.
1. First, it may be objected that the idea of public reason would unreasonably
limit the topics and considerations available for political argument and
debate, and that we should adopt instead what we may call the open view with no
constraints. I now discuss two examples to rebut this objection.
(a) One reason for thinking public reason is too restrictive is to suppose
that it mistakenly tries to settle political questions in advance. To explain
this objection, let's consider the question of school prayer. It might be
thought that a liberal position on this question would deny its admissibility
in public schools. But why so? We have to consider all the political values
that can be invoked to settle this question and on which side the decisive
reasons fall. The famous debate in 1784-1785 between Patrick Henry and James
Madison over the establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia and involving
religion in the schools was argued almost entirely by reference to political
values alone. Henry's argument for establishment was based on the view that:
Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men,
restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society, which cannot be
effected without a competent provision for learned teachers ....
Henry did not seem to argue for Christian knowledge as good in itself but
rather as an effective way to achieve basic political values, namely, the good
and peaceable conduct of citizens. Thus, I take him to mean by
"vices," at least in part, those actions contrary to the political virtues found in
n72 and expressed by other conceptions of democracy.
Leaving aside the obvious difficulty of whether prayers can be composed that
satisfy all the needed restrictions of political
[*795] justice, Madison's objections to Henry's bill turned largely on whether
religious establishment was necessary to support orderly civil society. He
concluded it was not. Madison's objections depended also on the historical
effects of establishment both on society and on the integrity of religion
itself. He was acquainted with the prosperity of colonies that had no
establishment, notably Pennsylvania; he cited the strength of early
Christianity in opposition to the hostile Roman Empire, and the corruption of
n73 With some care, many if not all of these arguments can be expressed in terms
of the political values of public reason.
Of special interest in the example of school prayer is that it brings out that
the idea of public reason is not a view about specific political institutions
or policies. Rather, it is a view about the kind of reasons on which citizens
are to rest their political cases in making their political justifications to
one another when they support laws and policies that invoke the coercive powers
of government concerning fundamental political questions. Also of special
interest in this example is that it serves to emphasize that the principles
that support the separation of church and state should be such that they can be
affirmed by all free and equal citizens, given the fact of reasonable pluralism.
The reasons for the separation of church and state are these, among others: It
protects religion from the state and the state from religion; it protects
citizens from their churches
n74 and citizens from one another. It is a mistake to say that political
liberalism is an individualist political conception, since its aim is the
protection of the various interests in liberty, both associational and
individual. And it is also a grave error to think that the separation of church
and state is primarily for the protection of secular culture; of course it does
protect that culture, but no more so than it protects all religions. The
vitality and wide acceptance
[*796] of religion in America is often commented upon, as if it were a sign of the
peculiar virtue of the American people. Perhaps so, but it may also be
connected with the fact that in this country the various religions have been
protected by the First Amendment from the state, and none has been able to
dominate and suppress the other religions by the capture and use of state
n75 While some have no doubt entertained that aim since the early days of the
Republic, it has not been seriously tried. Indeed, Tocqueville thought that
among the main causes of the strength of democracy in this country was the
separation of church and state.
[*797] litical liberalism agrees with many other liberal views in accepting this
n77 Some citizens of faith have felt that this separation is hostile to religion
and have sought to change it. In doing this I believe they fail to grasp a main
cause of the strength of religion in this country and, as Tocqueville says,
seem ready to jeopardize it for temporary gains in political power.
(b) Others may think that public reason is too restrictive because it may lead
to a stand-off
n78 and fail to bring about decisions on disputed issues. A stand-off in some
sense may indeed happen, not only in moral and political reasoning but in all
forms of reasoning, including science and common sense. Nevertheless, this is
irrelevant. The relevant comparison is to those situations in which legislators
enacting laws and judges deciding cases must make decisions. Here some
political rule of action must be laid down and all must be able reasonably to
endorse the process by which a decision is reached. Recall that public reason
sees the office of citizen with its duty of civility as analogous to that of
judge with its duty of deciding cases. Just as judges are to decide cases by
legal grounds of precedent, recognized canons of statutory interpretation, and
other relevant grounds, so citizens are to reason by public reason and to be
guided by the criterion of reciprocity, whenever constitutional essentials and
matters of basic justice are at stake.
Thus, when there seems to be a stand-off, that is, when legal arguments seem
evenly balanced on both sides, judges cannot resolve the case simply by
appealing to their own political views. To do that is for judges to violate
their duty. The same holds with public reason: if, when stand-offs occur,
citizens simply invoke grounding reasons of their comprehensive views,
n79 the principle of reciprocity is violated. From the point of view of public
reason, citizens must vote for the ordering of political values they sincerely
think the most reasonable. Otherwise they fail to exercise political power in
ways that satisfy the criterion of reciprocity.
In particular, when hotly disputed questions, such as that of abortion, arise
which may lead to a stand-off between different political conceptions, citizens
must vote on the question according to their complete ordering of political
n80 Indeed, this is a normal case: unanimity of views is not to be expected.
Reasonable political conceptions of justice do not always lead to the same
n81 nor do citizens holding the same conception always agree on particular issues.
Yet the outcome of the vote, as I said before, is to be seen as legitimate
provided all government officials, supported by other reasonable citizens, of a
reasonably just constitutional regime sincerely vote in accordance with the
idea of public reason. This doesn't mean the outcome is true or correct, but
that it is reasonable and legitimate law, binding on citizens by the majority
Some may, of course, reject a legitimate decision, as Roman Catholics may
reject a decision to grant a right to abortion. They may present an argument in
public reason for denying it and fail to win a majority.
n82 But they need not themselves exercise the
[*799] right to abortion. They can recognize the right as belonging to legitimate law
enacted in accordance with legitimate political institutions and public reason,
and therefore not resist it with force. Forceful resistance is unreasonable: it
would mean attempting to impose by force their own comprehensive doctrine that
a majority of other citizens who follow public reason, not unreasonably, do not
accept. Certainly Catholics may, in line with public reason, continue to argue
against the right to abortion. Reasoning is not closed once and for all in
public reason any more than it is closed in any form of reasoning. Moreover,
that the Catholic Church's nonpublic reason requires its members to follow its
doctrine is perfectly consistent with their also honoring public reason.
I do not discuss the question of abortion in itself since my concern is not
with that question but rather to stress that political liberalism does not hold
that the ideal of public reason should always lead to a general agreement of
views, nor is it a fault that it does not. Citizens learn and profit from
debate and argument, and when their arguments follow public reason, they
instruct society's political culture and deepen their understanding of one
another even when agreement cannot be reached.
2. Some of the considerations underlying the stand-off objection lead to a
more general objection to public reason, namely, that the content of the family
of reasonable political conceptions of justice on which it is based is itself
much too narrow. This objection insists that we should always present what we
think are true or grounding reasons for our views. That is, the objection
insists, we are bound to express the true, or the right, as seen from our
However, as I said in the Introduction, in public reason ideas of truth or
right based on comprehensive doctrines are replaced by an idea of the
politically reasonable addressed to citizens as citizens. This step is
necessary to establish a basis of political reasoning that all can share as
free and equal citizens. Since we are seeking public justifications for
political and social institutions - for the basic structure of a political and
social world - we
[*800] think of persons as citizens. This assigns to each person the same basic
political position. In giving reasons to all citizens we don't view persons as
socially situated or otherwise rooted, that is, as being in this or that social
class, or in this or that property and income group, or as having this or that
comprehensive doctrine. Nor are we appealing to each person's or each group's
interests, though at some point we must take these interests into account.
Rather, we think of persons as reasonable and rational, as free and equal
citizens, with the two moral powers
n84 and having, at any given moment, a determinate conception of the good, which
may change over time. These features of citizens are implicit in their taking
part in a fair system of social cooperation and seeking and presenting public
justifications for their judgments on fundamental political questions.
I emphasize that this idea of public reason is fully compatible with the many
forms of nonpublic reason.
n85 These belong to the internal life of the many associations in civil society
and they are not of course all the same; different nonpublic reasons of
different religious associations shared by their members are not those of
scientific societies. Since we seek a shareable public basis of justification
for all citizens in society, giving justifications to particular persons and
groups here and there until all are covered fails to do this. To speak of all
persons in society is still too broad, unless we suppose that they are in their
nature basically the same. In political philosophy one role of ideas about our
nature has been to think of people in a standard, or canonical, fashion so that
they might all accept the same kind of reasons.
n86 In political liberalism, however, we try to avoid natural or psychological
views of this kind, as well as theological or secular doctrines. Accounts of
human nature we put aside and rely on a political conception of persons as
3. As I have stressed throughout, it is central to political liberalism that
free and equal citizens affirm both a comprehensive doctrine and a political
conception. However, the relation be-
[*801] tween a comprehensive doctrine and its accompanying political conception is
When political liberalism speaks of a reasonable overlapping consensus of
n87 it means that all of these doctrines, both religious and nonreligious, support
a political conception of justice underwriting a constitutional democratic
society whose principles, ideals, and standards satisfy the criterion of
reciprocity. Thus, all reasonable doctrines affirm such a society with its
corresponding political institutions: equal basic rights and liberties for all
citizens, including liberty of conscience and the freedom of religion.
n88 On the other hand, comprehensive doctrines that cannot support such a
democratic society are not reasonable. Their principles and ideals do not
satisfy the criterion of reciprocity, and in various ways they fail to
establish the equal basic liberties. As examples, consider the many
fundamentalist religious doctrines, the doctrine of the divine right of
monarchs and the various forms of aristocracy, and, not to be overlooked, the
many instances of autocracy and dictatorship.
Moreover, a true judgment in a reasonable comprehensive doctrine never
conflicts with a reasonable judgment in its related political conception. A
reasonable judgment of the political conception must still be confirmed as
true, or right, by the comprehensive doctrine. It is, of course, up to citizens
themselves to affirm, revise, or change their comprehensive doctrines. Their
doctrines may override or count for naught the political values of a
constitutional democratic society. But then the citizens cannot claim that such
doctrines are reasonable. Since the criterion of reciprocity is an essential
ingredient specifying public reason and its content, political liberalism
rejects as unreasonable all such doctrines.
In a reasonable comprehensive doctrine, in particular a religious one, the
ranking of values may not be what we might expect. Thus, suppose we call
transcendent such values as salvation and eternal life - the Visio Dei. This
value, let's say, is higher, or superior to, the reasonable political values of
a constitutional democratic society. These are worldly values and therefore on
a different, and as it were lower, plane than those transcendent values. It
doesn't follow, however, that these lower yet reasonable values are overridden
by the transcendent values of the religious doctrine. In fact, a reasonable
comprehensive doctrine is
[*802] one in which they are not overridden; it is the unreasonable doctrines in
which reasonable political values are overridden. This is a consequence of the
idea of the politically reasonable as set out in political liberalism. Recall
that it was said: In endorsing a constitutional democratic regime, a religious
doctrine may say that such are the limits God sets to our liberty.
A further misunderstanding alleges that an argument in public reason could not
side with Lincoln against Douglas in their debates of 1858.
n90 But why not? Certainly they were debating fundamental political principles
about the rights and wrongs of slavery. Since the rejection of slavery is a
clear case of securing the constitutional essential of the equal basic
liberties, surely Lincoln's view was reasonable (even if not the most
reasonable), while Douglas's was not. Therefore, Lincoln's view is supported by
any reasonable comprehensive doctrine. It is no surprise, then, that his view
is in line with the religious doctrines of the Abolitionists and the Civil
Rights Movement. What could be a better example to illustrate the force of
public reason in political life?
4. A third general objection is that the idea of public reason is unnecessary
and serves no purpose in a well established constitutional democracy. Its
limits and constraints are useful primarily when a society is sharply divided
and contains many hostile religious associations and secular groups, each
striving to become the controlling political force. In the political societies
of the European democracies and the United States these worries, so the
objection goes, are idle.
However, this objection is incorrect and sociologically faulty. For without
citizens' allegiance to public reason and their honoring the duty of civility,
divisions and hostilities between doctrines are bound in time to assert
themselves, should they not already exist. Harmony and concord among doctrines
and a people's affirming public reason are unhappily not a permanent condition
of social life. Rather, harmony and concord depend on the vitality of the
public political culture and on citizens' being devoted to and realizing the
ideal of public reason. Citizens could easily fall into bitterness and
resentment, once they no longer see the point of affirming an ideal of public
reason and come to ignore it.
To return to where we began in this Section: I do not know how to prove that
public reason is not too restrictive, or whether its forms are properly
described. I suspect it cannot be done. Yet this is not a serious problem if,
as I believe, the large majority of cases fit the framework of public reason,
and the cases that do not fit all have special features that both enable us to
understand why they should cause difficulty and show us how to cope with them
as they arise. This prompts the general questions of whether there are examples
of important cases of constitutional essentials and basic justice that do not
fit the framework of public reason, and if so, why they cause difficulty. In
this paper I do not pursue these questions.
1. Throughout, I have been concerned with a torturing question in the
contemporary world, namely: Can democracy and comprehensive doctrines,
religious or nonreligious, be compatible? And if so, how? At the moment a
number of conflicts between religion and democracy raise this question. To
answer it political liberalism makes the distinction between a self-standing
political conception of justice and a comprehensive doctrine. A religious
doctrine resting on the authority of the Church or the Bible is not, of course,
a liberal comprehensive doctrine: its leading religious and moral values are
not those, say, of Kant or Mill. Nevertheless, it may endorse a constitutional
democratic society and recognize its public reason. Here it is basic that
public reason is a political idea and belongs to the category of the political.
Its content is given by the family of (liberal) political conceptions of
justice satisfying the criterion of reciprocity. It does not trespass upon
religious beliefs and injunctions insofar as these are consistent with the
essential constitutional liberties, including the freedom of religion and
liberty of conscience. There
[*804] is, or need be, no war between religion and democracy. In this respect
political liberalism is sharply different from and rejects Enlightenment
Liberalism, which historically attacked orthodox Christianity.
The conflicts between democracy and reasonable religious doctrines and among
reasonable religious doctrines themselves are greatly mitigated and contained
within the bounds of reasonable principles of justice in a constitutional
democratic society. This mitigation is due to the idea of toleration, and I
have distinguished between two such ideas.
n92 One is purely political, being expressed in terms of the rights and duties
protecting religious liberty in accordance with a reasonable political
conception of justice.
n93 The other is not purely political but expressed from within a religious or a
nonreligious doctrine. However, a reasonable judgment of the political
conception must still be confirmed as true, or right, by a reasonable
n94 I assume, then, that a reasonable comprehensive doctrine accepts some form of
the political argument for toleration. Of course, citizens may think that the
grounding reasons for toleration and for the other elements of a constitutional
democratic society are not political but rather are to be found in their
religious or nonreligious doctrines. And these reasons, they may well say, are
the true or the right reasons; and they may see the political reasons as
superficial, the grounding ones as deep. Yet there is no conflict here, but
simply concordant judgments made within political conceptions of justice on the
one hand, and within comprehensive doctrines on the other.
There are limits, however, to reconciliation by public reason. Three main
kinds of conflicts set citizens at odds: those deriving from irreconcilable
comprehensive doctrines; those deriving from differences in status, class
position, or occupation, or from differences in ethnicity, gender, or race; and
finally, those deriving
[*805] from the burdens of judgment.
n95 Political liberalism concerns primarily the first kind of conflict. It holds
that even though our comprehensive doctrines are irreconcilable and cannot be
compromised, nevertheless citizens who affirm reasonable doctrines may share
reasons of another kind, namely, public reasons given in terms of political
conceptions of justice. I also believe that such a society can resolve the
second kind of conflict, which deals with conflicts between citizens'
fundamental interests - political, economic, and social. For once we accept
reasonable principles of justice and recognize them to be reasonable (even if
not the most reasonable), and know, or reasonably believe, that our political
and social institutions satisfy them, the second kind of conflict need not
arise, or arise so forcefully. Political liberalism does not explicitly
consider these conflicts but leaves them to be considered by justice as
fairness, or by some other reasonable conception of political justice. Finally,
conflicts arising from the burdens of judgment always exist and limit the
extent of possible agreement.
2. Reasonable comprehensive doctrines do not reject the essentials of a
constitutional democratic polity.
n96 Moreover, reasonable persons are characterized in two ways: First, they stand
ready to offer fair terms of social cooperation between equals, and they abide
by these terms if others do also, even should it be to their advantage not to;
n97 second, reasonable persons recognize and accept the consequences of the
burdens of judgment, which leads to the idea of reasonable toleration in a
n98 Finally we come to the idea of legitimate law, which reasonable citizens
understand to apply to the general structure of political authority.
n99 They know that in political life unanimity can rarely if ever be expected, so
a reasonable democratic constitution must include majority or other plurality
voting procedures in order to reach decisions.
The idea of the politically reasonable is sufficient unto itself for the
purposes of public reason when basic political questions are at stake. Of
course, fundamentalist religious doctrines and
[*806] autocratic and dictatorial rulers will reject the ideas of public reason and
deliberative democracy. They will say that democracy leads to a culture
contrary to their religion, or denies the values that only autocratic or
dictatorial rule can secure.
n101 They assert that the religiously true, or the philosophically true, overrides
the politically reasonable. We simply say that such a doctrine is politically
unreasonable. Within political liberalism nothing more need be said.
I noted in the beginning
n102 the fact that every actual society, however dominant and controlling its
reasonable citizens may be, will normally contain numerous unreasonable
doctrines that are not compatible with a democratic society - either certain
religious doctrines, such as fundamentalist religions, or certain nonreligious
(secular) doctrines, such as those of autocracy and dictatorship, of which our
century offers hideous examples. How far unreasonable doctrines may be active
and are to be tolerated in a constitutional democratic regime does not present
a new and different question, despite the fact that in this account of public
reason we have focused on the idea of the reasonable and the role of reasonable
citizens. There is not one account of toleration for reasonable doctrines and
another for unreasonable ones. Both cases are settled by the appropriate
political principles of justice and the conduct those principles permit.
n103 Unreasonable doctrines are a threat to democratic institutions, since it is
impossible for them to abide by a constitutional regime except as a modus
vivendi. Their existence sets a limit to the aim of fully realizing a
reasonable democratic society with its ideal of public reason and the idea of
legitimate law. This fact is not a defect or failure of the idea of public
reason, but rather it indicates that there are limits to what public reason can
accomplish. It does not diminish the great value and importance of attempting
to realize that ideal to the fullest extent possible.
3. I end by pointing out the fundamental difference between A Theory of
Justice and Political Liberalism. The first explicitly attempts to develop from
the idea of the social contract, represented by Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, a
theory of justice that is no longer open to objections often thought fatal to
it, and that proves superior to the long dominant tradition of utilitarianism.
A Theory of Justice hopes to present the structural features of
[*807] such a theory so as to make it the best approximation to our considered
judgments of justice and hence to give the most appropriate moral basis for a
democratic society. Furthermore, justice as fairness is presented there as a
comprehensive liberal doctrine (although the term
"comprehensive doctrine" is not used in the book) in which all the members of its well ordered society
affirm that same doctrine. This kind of well ordered society contradicts the
fact of reasonable pluralism and hence Political Liberalism regards that
society as impossible.
Thus, Political Liberalism considers a different question, namely: How is it
possible for those affirming a comprehensive doctrine, religious or
nonreligious, and in particular doctrines based on religious authority, such as
the Church or the Bible, also to hold a reasonable political conception of
justice that supports a constitutional democratic society? The political
conceptions are seen as both liberal and self-standing and not as
comprehensive, whereas the religious doctrines may be comprehensive but not
liberal. The two books are asymmetrical, though both have an idea of public
reason. In the first, public reason is given by a comprehensive liberal
doctrine, while in the second, public reason is a way of reasoning about
political values shared by free and equal citizens that does not trespass on
citizens' comprehensive doctrines so long as those doctrines are consistent
with a democratic polity. Thus, the well ordered constitutional democratic
society of Political Liberalism is one in which the dominant and controlling
citizens affirm and act from irreconcilable yet reasonable comprehensive
doctrines. These doctrines in turn support reasonable political conceptions -
although not necessarily the most reasonable - which specify the basic rights,
liberties, and opportunities of citizens in society's basic structure.
n1. See John Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, 8.5 (Columbia paperback ed
1996). References to Political Liberalism are given by lecture and section;
page numbers are also provided unless the reference refers to an entire
lecture, section, or subsection. Note that the 1996 paperback edition of
Political Liberalism contains a new second introduction which, among other
things, tries to make clearer certain aspects of political liberalism. Section
5 of this introduction, id at l-lvii, discusses the idea of public reason and
sketches several changes I now make in affirming this idea. These are all
followed and elaborated in what is presented here and are important to a
complete understanding of the argument. Note also that the pagination of the
paperback edition is the same as the original.
n2. I shall use the term doctrine for comprehensive views of all kinds and the
term conception for a political conception and its component parts, such as the
conception of the person as citizen. The term idea is used as a general term
and may refer to either as the context determines.
n3. Of course, every society also contains numerous unreasonable doctrines. Yet in
this essay I am concerned with an ideal normative conception of democratic
government, that is, with the conduct of its reasonable citizens and the
principles they follow, assuming them to be dominant and controlling. How far
unreasonable doctrines are active and tolerated is to be determined by the
principles of justice and the kinds of actions they permit. See 7.2.
n4. See 6.2.
n5. See 1.2.
n6. See text accompanying notes 12-15.
n7. These questions are described in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, 5 at
227-30 (cited in note 1). Constitutional essentials concern questions about
what political rights and liberties, say, may reasonably be included in a
written constitution, when assuming the constitution may be interpreted by a
supreme court, or some similar body. Matters of basic justice relate to the
basic structure of society and so would concern questions of basic economic and
social justice and other things not covered by a constitution.
n8. There is no settled meaning of this term. The one I use is not I think
n9. Here we face the question of where to draw the line between candidates and
those who manage their campaigns and other politically engaged citizens
generally. We settle this matter by making candidates and those who run their
campaigns responsible for what is said and done on the candidates' behalf.
n10. Often writers on this topic use terms that do not distinguish the parts of
public discussion, for example, such terms as
"the public square,"
"the public forum," and the like. I follow Kent Greenawalt in thinking a finer division is
necessary. See Kent Greenawalt, Religious Convictions and Political Choice
226-27 (Oxford 1988) (describing, for example, the differences between a
religious leader's preaching or promoting a pro-life organization and leading a
major political movement or running for political office).
n11. See 4.
n12. Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, 2.3 at 14 (cited in note 1).
n13. The background culture includes, then, the culture of churches and
associations of all kinds, and institutions of learning at all levels,
especially universities and professional schools, scientific and other
societies. In addition, the nonpublic political culture mediates between the
public political culture and the background culture. This comprises media -
properly so named - of all kinds: newspapers, reviews and magazines, TV and
radio, and much else. Compare these divisions with Habermas's account of the
public sphere. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IX, 1.3 at 382 n 13
(cited in note 1).
n14. See id, lecture VI, 3 at 220-22.
n15. See David Hollenbach, S.J., Civil Society: Beyond the Public-Private
Dichotomy, 5 The Responsive Community 15 (Winter 1994/95). For example, he says:
Conversation and argument about the common good will not occur initially in the
legislature or in the political sphere (narrowly conceived as the domain in
which interests and power are adjudicated). Rather it will develop freely in
those components of civil society that are the primary bearers of cultural
meaning and value - universities, religious communities, the world of the arts,
and serious journalism. It can occur wherever thoughtful men and women bring
their beliefs on the meaning of the good life into intelligent and critical
encounter with understandings of this good held by other peoples with other
traditions. In short, it occurs wherever education about and serious inquiry
into the meaning of the good life takes place.
Id at 22.
n16. There is some resemblance between this criterion and Kant's principle of the
original contract. See Immanuel Kant, The Metaphysics of Morals: Metaphysical
First Principles of the Doctrine of Right 47-49 at 92-95 (AK 6:315-18)
(Cambridge 1996) (Mary Gregor, trans and ed); Immanuel Kant, On the Common
"This May be True in Theory, but it does not Apply in Practice,' Part II, in
Kant: Political Writings 73-87 (AK 8: 289-306) (Cambridge 2d ed 1991) (Hans
Reiss, ed, H.B. Nisbet, trans).
n17. See also 4.2.
n18. Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, 2.1 at 12 (cited in note 1). For
concerns about exiting only by death, see id, lecture IV, 1.2 at 136 n 4.
n19. The idea of reciprocity has an important place in Amy Gutmann and Dennis
Thompson, Democracy and Disagreement chs 1-2 and passim (Belknap 1996).
However, the meaning and setting of our views are not the same. Public reason
in political liberalism is purely political, although political values are
intrinsically moral, whereas Gutmann and Thompson's account is more general and
seems to work from a comprehensive doctrine.
n20. For a useful historical survey see David Held, Models of Democracy (Stanford
2d ed 1997). Held's numerous models cover the period from the ancient polis to
the present time and he concludes by asking what democracy should mean today.
In between he considers the several forms of classical republicanism and
classical liberalism, as well as Schumpeter's conception of competitive elite
democracy. Some figures discussed include Plato and Aristotle; Marsilius of
Padua and Machiavelli; Hobbes and Madison; Bentham, James Mill and J. S. Mill;
Marx with socialism and communism. These are paired with schematized models of
the characteristic institutions and their roles.
n21. Deliberative democracy limits the reasons citizens may give in supporting
their political opinions to reasons consistent with their seeing other citizens
as equals. See Joshua Cohen, Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy, in Alan
Hamlin and Philip Petit, eds, The Good Polity: Normative Analysis of the State
17, 21, 24 (Basil Blackwell 1989); Review Symposium on Democracy and Its
Critics, 53 J Pol 215, 223-24 (1991) (comments of Joshua Cohen); Joshua Cohen,
Democracy and Liberty 13-17 (manuscript on file with U Chi L Rev), in Jon
Elster, ed, Deliberative Democracy (forthcoming 1997).
n22. Ronald Dworkin, The Curse of American Politics, NY Rev Books 19 (Oct 17, 1996)
"money is the biggest threat to the democratic process"). Dworkin also argues forcefully against the grave error of the Supreme Court
Buckley v Valeo, 424 US 1 (1976). Dworkin, NY Rev Books at 21-24. See also Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture
VIII, 12 at 359-63 (cited in note 1) (Buckley is
"dismaying" and raises the risk of
"repeating the mistake of the Lochner era.").
n23. Paul Krugman, Demographics and Destiny, NY Times Book Rev 12 (Oct 20, 1996),
reviewing and describing proposals in Peter G. Peterson, Will America Grow Up
Before It Grows Old? How the Coming Social Security Crisis Threatens You, Your
Family, and Your Country (Random House 1996), and Charles R. Morris, The AARP:
America's Most Powerful Lobby and the Clash of Generations (Times Books 1996).
n24. Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, 4 at 22-28 (cited in note 1).
n25. Here I follow the definition in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, 1.2 at
6, lecture IV, 5.3 at 156-57 (cited in note 1).
n26. Some may think the fact of reasonable pluralism means the only forms of fair
adjudication between comprehensive doctrines must be only procedural and not
substantive. This view is forcefully argued by Stuart Hampshire in Innocence
and Experience (Harvard 1989). In the text above, however, I assume the several
forms of liberalism are each substantive conceptions. For a thorough treatment
of these issues, see the discussion in Joshua Cohen, Pluralism and
69 Chi Kent L Rev 589 (1994).
n27. I do think that justice as fairness has a certain special place in the family
of political conceptions, as I suggest in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture
IV, 7.4 (cited in note 1). But this opinion of mine is not basic to the ideas
of political liberalism and public reason.
n28. See J<um u>rgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of
Law and Democracy 107-09 (MIT 1996) (William Rehg, trans) (defining the
discourse principle). Seyla Benhabib in her discussion of models of public
space in Situating the Self: Gender, Community and Postmodernism in
Contemporary Ethics (Routledge 1992), says that:
"The discourse model is the only one which is compatible both with the general
social trends of our societies and with the emancipatory aspirations of new
social movements like the women's movement." Id at 113. She has previously considered Arendt's agonistic conception, as
Benhabib calls it, and that of political liberalism. But I find it hard to
distinguish her view from that of a form of political liberalism and public
reason, since it turns out that she means by the public sphere what Habermas
does, namely what Political Liberalism calls the background culture of civil
society in which the ideal of public reason does not apply. Hence political
liberalism is not limiting in the way she thinks. Also, Benhabib does not try
to show, so far as I can see, that certain principles of right and justice
belonging to the content of public reason could not be interpreted to deal with
the problems raised by the women's movement. I doubt that this can be done. The
same holds for Benhabib's earlier remarks in Seyla Benhabib, Liberal Dialogue
Versus a Critical Theory of Discursive Legitimation, in Nancy L. Rosenblum, ed,
Liberalism and the Moral Life 143, 154-56 (Harvard 1989), in which the problems
of the women's movement were discussed in a similar way.
n29. Deriving from Aristotle and St. Thomas, the idea of the common good is
essential to much of Catholic moral and political thought. See, for example,
John Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights 153-56, 160 (Clarendon 1980);
Jacques Maritain, Man and the State 108-14 (Chicago 1951). Finnis is especially clear, while Aquinas is occasionally ambiguous.
n30. Thus, Jeremy Waldron's criticism of political liberalism as not allowing new
and changing conceptions of political justice is incorrect. See Jeremy Waldron,
Religious Contributions in Public Deliberation,
30 San Diego L Rev 817, 837-38 (1993). See the reply to Waldron's criticisms in Lawrence B. Solum, Novel Public
29 Loyola LA L Rev 1459, 1460 (1996) ("General acceptance of a liberal ideal of public reason would permit the robust
evolution of political discourse.").
n31. See note 2 for my definition of doctrine.
n32. See 4.
n33. Here see Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IX, 1.1 at 374-75 (cited in note
n34. This thought I owe to Peter de Marneffe.
n35. Note here that different political conceptions of justice will represent
different interpretations of the constitutional essentials and matters of basic
justice. There are also different interpretations of the same conception, since
its concepts and values may be taken in different ways. There is not, then, a
sharp line between where a political conception ends and its interpretation
begins, nor need there be. All the same, a conception greatly limits its
possible interpretations, otherwise discussion and argument could not proceed.
For example, a constitution declaring the freedom of religion, including the
freedom to affirm no religion, along with the separation of church and state,
may appear to leave open the question whether church schools may receive public
funds, and if so, in what way. The difference here might be seen as how to
interpret the same political conception, one interpretation allowing public
funds, the other not; or alternatively, as the difference between two political
conceptions. In the absence of particulars, it does not matter which we call
it. The important point is that since the content of public reason is a family
of political conceptions, that content admits the interpretations we may need.
It is not as if we were stuck with a fixed conception, much less with one
interpretation of it. This is a comment on Kent Greenawalt, Private Consciences
and Public Reasons 113-20 (Oxford 1995), where Political Liberalism is said to
have difficulty dealing with the problem of determining the interpretation of
n36. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty ch 3 PP 1-9 (1859), in 18 Collected Works of John
Stuart Mill 260-75 (Toronto 1977) (John M. Robson, ed).
n37. See 4.1 on the proviso and the example of citing the Gospel story. For a
detailed consideration of the wide view of public political culture, see
n38. Of course, I don't here attempt to decide the question, since we are concerned
only with the kinds of reasons and considerations that public reasoning
n39. See 2.2.
n40. See Robert Audi, The Place of Religious Argument in a Free and Democratic
30 San Diego L Rev 677 (1993). Here Audi defines a secular reason as follows:
"A secular reason is roughly one whose normative force does not evidentially
depend on the existence of God or on theological considerations, or on the
pronouncements of a person or institution qua religious authority."
Id at 692. This definition is ambiguous between secular reasons in the sense of a
nonreligious comprehensive doctrine and in the sense of a purely political
conception within the content of public reason. Depending on which is meant,
Audi's view that secular reasons must also be given along with religious
reasons might have a role similar to what I call the proviso in 4.1.
n41. See the discussion by Michael Perry of John Finnis's argument, which denies
that such relations are compatible with human good. Religion in Politics:
Constitutional and Moral Perspectives ch 3 at 85-86 (Oxford 1997).
n42. Here I follow T.M. Scanlon's view in The Difficulty of Tolerance, in David
Heyd, ed, Toleration: An Elusive Virtue 226 (Princeton 1996). While the whole
is instructive, 3 at 230-33 is especially relevant here.
n43. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture IV, 3.4 at 148 (cited in note 1).
n44. See Kent Greenawalt's example of the society of Diverse Fervent Believers in
Greenawalt, Private Consciences and Public Reasons at 16-18, 21-22 (cited in
n45. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture V, 6 at 195-200 (cited in note 1).
n46. An example of how a religion may do this is the following. Abdullahi Ahmed
An-Na'im, in his book Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human
Rights, and International Law 52-57 (Syracuse 1990), introduces the idea of
reconsidering the traditional interpretation of Shari'a, which for Muslims is
divine law. For his interpretation to be accepted by Muslims, it must be
presented as the correct and superior interpretation of Shari'a. The basic idea
of An-Na'im's interpretation, following the late Sudanese author Ustadh Mahmoud
Mohamed Taha, is that the traditional understanding of Shari'a has been based
on the teachings of the later Medina period of Muhammad, whereas the teachings
of the earlier Mecca period of Muhammad are the eternal and fundamental message
of Islam. An-Na'im claims that the superior Mecca teachings and principles were
rejected in favor of the more realistic and practical (in a seventh-century
historical context) Medina teachings because society was not yet ready for
their implementation. Now that historical conditions have changed, An-Na'im
believes that Muslims should follow the earlier Mecca period in interpreting
Shari'a. So interpreted, he says that Shari'a supports constitutional
democracy. Id at 69-100.
In particular, the earlier Mecca interpretation of Shari'a supports equality of
men and women, and complete freedom of choice in matters of faith and religion,
both of which are in accordance with the constitutional principle of equality
before the law. An-Na'im writes:
The Qur'an does not mention constitutionalism, but human rational thinking and
experience have shown that constitutionalism is necessary for realizing the
just and good society prescribed by the Qur'an.
An Islamic justification and support for constitutionalism is important and
relevant for Muslims. Non-Muslims may have their own secular or other
justifications. As long as all are agreed on the principle and specific rules
of constitutionalism, including complete equality and non-discrimination on
grounds of gender or religion, each may have his or her own reasons for coming
to that agreement.
Id at 100. (This is a perfect example of overlapping consensus.) I thank Akeel
Bilgrami for informing me of An-Na'im's work. I also owe thanks to Roy
Mottahedeh for valuable discussion.
n47. See 4.3.
n48. Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture I, 2.3 at 13-14 (cited in note 1)
(contrasting public political culture with background culture).
n49. I am indebted here to valuable discussion with Dennis Thompson.
n50. Greenawalt discusses Franklin Gamwell and Michael Perry, who do evidently
impose such constraints on how religion is to be presented. See Greenawalt,
Private Consciences and Public Reasons at 85-95 (cited in note 35).
n51. Again, as always, in distinction from the background culture, where I
emphasize there are no restrictions.
n52. Political liberalism is sometimes criticized for not itself developing
accounts of these social roots of democracy and setting out the formation of
its religious and other supports. Yet political liberalism does recognize these
social roots and stresses their importance. Obviously the political conceptions
of toleration and freedom of religion would be impossible in a society in which
religious freedom were not honored and cherished. Thus, political liberalism
agrees with David Hollenbach, S.J., when he writes:
Not the least important of [the transformations brought about by Aquinas] was
his insistence that the political life of a people is not the highest
realization of the good of which they are capable - an insight that lies at the
root of constitutional theories of limited government. And though the Church
resisted the liberal discovery of modern freedoms through much of the modern
period, liberalism has been transforming Catholicism once again through the
last half of our own century. The memory of these events in social and
intellectual history as well as the experience of the Catholic Church since the
Second Vatican Council leads me to hope that communities holding different
visions of the good life can get somewhere if they are willing to risk
conversation and argument about these visions.
David Hollenbach, S.J., Contexts of the Political Role of Religion: Civil
Society and Culture,
30 San Diego L Rev 877, 891 (1993). While a conception of public reason must recognize the significance of these
social roots of constitutional democracy and note how they strengthen its vital
institutions, it need not itself undertake a study of these matters. For the
need to consider this point I am indebted to Paul Weithman.
n53. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, 8.2 at 248-49 (cited in note 1).
n54. See id, lecture VI, 8.3 at 249-51. I do not know whether the Abolitionists and
King thought of themselves as fulfilling the purpose of the proviso. But
whether they did or not, they could have. And had they known and accepted the
idea of public reason, they would have. I thank Paul Weithman for this point.
n55. Luke 10:29-37. It is easy to see how the Gospel story could be used to support
the imperfect moral duty of mutual aid, as found, say, in Kant's fourth example
in the Grundlegung. See Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
AK 4:423, in Mary Gregor, trans, Practical Philosophy (Cambridge 1996). To
formulate a suitable example in terms of political values only, consider a
variant of the difference principle or of some other analogous idea. The
principle could be seen as giving a special concern for the poor, as in the
Catholic social doctrine. See John Rawls, A Theory of Justice 13 (Belknap 1971)
(defining the difference principle).
n56. For the relevance of this form of discourse I am indebted to discussion with
n57. I will mention another form of discourse that I call witnessing: it typically
occurs in an ideal, politically well ordered, and fully just society in which
all votes are the result of citizens' voting in accordance with their most
reasonable conception of political justice. Nevertheless, it may happen that
some citizens feel they must express their principled dissent from existing
institutions, policies, or enacted legislation. I assume that Quakers accept
constitutional democracy and abide by its legitimate law, yet at the same time
may reasonably express the religious basis of their pacifism. (The parallel
case of Catholic opposition to abortion is mentioned in 6.1.) Yet witnessing
differs from civil disobedience in that it does not appeal to principles and
values of a (liberal) political conception of justice. While on the whole these
citizens endorse reasonable political conceptions of justice supporting a
constitutional democratic society, in this case they nevertheless feel they
must not only let other citizens know the deep basis of their strong opposition
but must also bear witness to their faith by doing so. At the same time, those
bearing witness accept the idea of public reason. While they may think the
outcome of a vote on which all reasonable citizens have conscientiously
followed public reason to be incorrect or not true, they nevertheless recognize
it as legitimate law and accept the obligation not to violate it. In such a
society there is strictly speaking no case for civil disobedience and
conscientious refusal. The latter requires what I have called a nearly just,
but not fully just, society. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice 55 (cited in note
n58. I have thought that J.S. Mill's landmark The Subjection of Women (1869), in 21
Collected Works of John Stuart Mill 259 (cited in note 36), made clear that a
decent liberal conception of justice (including what I called justice as
fairness) implied equal justice for women as well as men. Admittedly, A Theory
of Justice should have been more explicit about this, but that was a fault of
mine and not of political liberalism itself. I have been encouraged to think
that a liberal account of equal justice for women is viable by Susan Moller
Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family (Basic Books 1989); Linda C. McClain,
"Atomistic Man" Revisited: Liberalism, Connection, and Feminist Jurisprudence,
65 S Cal L Rev 1171 (1992); Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford forthcoming 1998) (a
collection of her essays from 1990 to 1996, including The Feminist Critique of
Liberalism, her Oxford Amnesty Lecture for 1996); and Sharon A. Lloyd,
Situating a Feminist Criticism of John Rawls's Political Liberalism,
28 Loyola LA L Rev 1319 (1995). I have gained greatly from their writings.
n59. Rawls, A Theory of Justice 70-76 (cited in note 55) (discussing the stages of
moral development and their relevance to justice as fairness).
n60. However, no particular form of the family (monogamous, heterosexual, or
otherwise) is required by a political conception of justice so long as the
family is arranged to fulfill these tasks effectively and doesn't run afoul of
other political values. Note that this observation sets the way in which
justice as fairness deals with the question of gay and lesbian rights and
duties, and how they affect the family. If these rights and duties are
consistent with orderly family life and the education of children, they are,
ceteris paribus, fully admissible.
n61. See Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family at 90-93 (cited in note 58).
n62. The difference principle is defined in Rawls, A Theory of Justice 13 (cited in
n63. I borrow this thought from Joshua Cohen, Okin on Justice, Gender, and Family,
22 Can J Phil 263, 278 (1992).
n64. Michael Sandel supposes the two principles of justice as fairness to hold
generally for associations, including families. See Michael J. Sandel,
Liberalism and the Limits of Justice 30-34 (Cambridge 1982).
n65. Mill, Subjection of Women ch 2 at 283-98 (cited in note 58).
n66. Rawls, A Theory of Justice 16 at 99 (cited in note 55).
n67. This is Okin's term. See Okin, Justice, Gender, and the Family at 6, 14, 170
(cited in note 58).
n68. On this point, see Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, 3.2 at 221-22
(cited in note 1). Whether it is properly voluntary, and if so, under what
conditions, is a disputed question. Briefly, the question involves the
distinction between the reasonable and the rational explained thus: an action
is voluntary in one sense, but it may not be voluntary in another. It may be
voluntary in the sense of rational: doing the rational thing in the
circumstances even when these involve unfair conditions; or an action may be
voluntary in the sense of reasonable: doing the rational thing when all the
surrounding conditions are also fair. Clearly the text interprets
"voluntary" in the second sense: affirming one's religion is voluntary when all of the
surrounding conditions are reasonable, or fair. In these remarks I have assumed
that the subjective conditions of voluntariness (whatever they may be) are
present and have only noted the objective ones. A full discussion would lead us
n69. See Victor R. Fuchs, Women's Quest for Economic Equality (Harvard 1988).
Chapters 3 and 4 summarize the evidence for saying the main cause is not, as it
is often said, employer discrimination, while chapters 7 and 8 propose what is
to be done.
n70. See 2.3.
n71. See Thomas J. Curry, The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the
Passage of the First Amendment 139-48 (Oxford 1986). The quoted language, which
appears in id at 140, is from the preamble to the proposed
"Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion" (1784). Note that the popular Patrick Henry also provided the most serious
opposition to Jefferson's
"Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" (1779), which won out when reintroduced in the Virginia Assembly in 1786.
Curry, The First Freedoms at 146.
n72. For a discussion of these virtues, see Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture V,
5.4 at 194-95 (cited in note 1).
n73. See James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), in The Mind of the
Founder 8-16 (Bobbs-Merrill 1973) (Marvin Meyers, ed). Paragraph 6 refers to
the vigor of early Christianity in opposition to the empire, while paragraphs 7
and 11 refer to the mutually corrupting influence of past establishments on
both state and religion. In the correspondence between Madison and William
Bradford of Pennsylvania, whom he met at Princeton (College of New Jersey), the
freedom and prosperity of Pennsylvania without an establishment is praised and
celebrated. See 1 The Papers of James Madison (Chicago 1962) (William T. Hutchinson and William M.E. Rachal, eds). See especially
Madison's letters of 1 December 1773, id at 100-01; 24 January 1774, id at
104-06; and 1 April 1774, id at 111-13. A letter of Bradford's to Madison, 4
March 1774, refers to liberty as the genius of Pennsylvania. Id at 109.
Madison's arguments were similar to those of Tocqueville I mention below. See
also Curry, The First Freedoms at 142-48 (cited in note 71).
n74. It does this by protecting the freedom to change one's faith. Heresy and
apostasy are not crimes.
n75. What I refer to here is the fact that from the early days of the Emperor
Constantine in the fourth century Christianity punished heresy and tried to
stamp out by persecution and religious wars what it regarded as false doctrine
(for example, the crusade against the Albigenses led by Innocent III in the
13th century). To do this required the coercive powers of the state. Instituted
by Pope Gregory IX, the Inquisition was active throughout the Wars of Religion
in the 16th and 17th centuries. While most of the American Colonies had known
establishments of some kind (Congregationalist in New England, Episcopalian in
the South), the United States, thanks to the plurality of its religious sects
and the First Amendment which they endorsed, never did. A persecuting zeal has
been the great curse of the Christian religion. It was shared by Luther and
Calvin and the Protestant Reformers, and it was not radically changed in the
Catholic Church until Vatican II. In the Council's Declaration on Religious
Freedom - Dignitatis Humanae - the Catholic Church committed itself to the
principle of religious freedom as found in a constitutional democratic regime.
It declared the ethical doctrine of religious freedom resting on the dignity of
the human person; a political doctrine with respect to the limits of government
in religious matters; a theological doctrine of the freedom of the Church in
its relations to the political and social world. All persons, whatever their
faith, have the right of religious liberty on the same terms. Declaration on
Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae): On the Right of the Person and of
Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious (1965), in Walter
Abbott, S.J., ed, The Documents of Vatican II 675, 692-96 (Geoffrey Chapman
1966). As John Courtney Murray, S.J., said:
"A long-standing ambiguity had finally been cleared up. The Church does not deal
with the secular order in terms of a double standard - freedom for the Church
when Catholics are in the minority, privilege for the Church and intolerance
for others when Catholics are a majority." John Courtney Murray, S.J., Religious Freedom, in Abbott, ed, Documents of
Vatican II at 672, 673. See also the instructive discussion by Paul E. Sigmund,
Catholicism and Liberal Democracy, in R. Bruce Douglas and David Hollenbach,
S.J., eds, Catholicism and Liberalism: Contributions to American Public
Philosophy (Cambridge 1994). See especially id at 233-39.
n76. Alexis de Tocqueville, 1 Democracy in America 294-301 (Perennial Library 1988)
(J.P. Mayer, ed, George Lawrence, trans). In discussing
"The Main Causes That Make Religion Powerful in America," Tocqueville says the Catholic priests
"all thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their
country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation
in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who
did not agree about that." Id at 295. He continues:
There have been religions intimately linked to earthly governments, dominating
men's souls both by terror and by faith; but when a religion makes such an
alliance, I am not afraid to say that it makes the same mistake as any man
might; it sacrifices the future for the present, and by gaining a power to
which it has no claim, it risks its legitimate authority....
Hence religion cannot share the material strength of the rulers without being
burdened with some of the animosity roused against them.
Id at 297. He remarks that these observations apply all the more to a
democratic country, for in that case when religion seeks political power it
will attach itself to a particular party and be burdened by hostility to it. Id
at 298. Referring to the cause of the decline of religion in Europe, he
"I am profoundly convinced that this accidental and particular cause is the
close union of politics and religion.... European Christianity has allowed
itself to be intimately united with the powers of this world." Id at 300-01. Political liberalism accepts Tocqueville's view and sees it as
explaining, so far as possible, the basis of peace among comprehensive
doctrines both religious and secular.
n77. In this it agrees with Locke, Montesquieu, and Constant; Kant, Hegel, and Mill.
n78. I take the term from Philip Quinn. The idea appears in Rawls, Political
Liberalism, lecture VI, 7.1-2 at 240-41 (cited in note 1).
n79. I use the term
"grounding reasons" since many who might appeal to these reasons view them as the proper grounds,
or the true basis - religious, philosophical, or moral - of the ideals and
principles of public reasons and political conceptions of justice.
n80. Some have quite naturally read the footnote in Rawls, Political Liberalism,
lecture VI, 7.2 at 243-44 (cited in note 1), as an argument for the right to
abortion in the first trimester. I do not intend it to be one. (It does express
my opinion, but my opinion is not an argument.) I was in error in leaving it in
doubt whether the aim of the footnote was only to illustrate and confirm the
following statement in the text to which the footnote is attached:
"The only comprehensive doctrines that run afoul of public reason are those that
cannot support a reasonable balance [or ordering] of political values [on the
issue]." To try to explain what I meant, I used three political values (of course,
there are more) for the troubled issue of the right to abortion to which it
might seem improbable that political values could apply at all. I believe a
more detailed interpretation of those values may, when properly developed in
public reason, yield a reasonable argument. I don't say the most reasonable or
decisive argument; I don't know what that would be, or even if it exists. (For
an example of such a more detailed interpretation, see Judith Jarvis Thomson,
Abortion, 20 Boston Rev 11 (Summer 1995), though I would want to add several
addenda to it.) Suppose now, for purposes of illustration, that there is a
reasonable argument in public reason for the right to abortion but there is no
equally reasonable balance, or ordering, of the political values in public
reason that argues for the denial of that right. Then in this kind of case, but
only in this kind of case, does a comprehensive doctrine denying the right to
abortion run afoul of public reason. However, if it can satisfy the proviso of
the wide public reason better, or at least as well as other views, it has made
its case in public reason. Of course, a comprehensive doctrine can be
unreasonable on one or several issues without being simply unreasonable.
n81. Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture VI, 7.1 at 240-41 (cited in note 1).
n82. For such an argument, see Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, The Consistent Ethic:
What Sort of Framework?, 16 Origins 345, 347-50 (Oct 30, 1986). The idea of
public order the Cardinal presents includes these three political values:
public peace, essential protections of human rights, and the commonly accepted
standards of moral behavior in a community of law. Further, he grants that not
all moral imperatives are to be translated into prohibitive civil statutes and
thinks it essential to the political and social order to protect human life and
basic human rights. The denial of the right to abortion he hopes to justify on
the basis of those three values. I don't of course assess his argument here,
except to say it is clearly cast in some form of public reason. Whether it is
itself reasonable or not, or more reasonable than the arguments on the other
side, is another matter. As with any form of reasoning in public reason, the
reasoning may be fallacious or mistaken.
n83. As far as I can see, this view is similar to Father John Courtney Murray's
position about the stand the Church should take in regard to contraception in
We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition 157-58
(Sheed and Ward 1960). See also Mario Cuomo's lecture on abortion in his Notre
Dame Lecture of 1984, in More Than Words: The Speeches of Mario Cuomo 32-51 (St
Martin's 1993). I am indebted to Leslie Griffin and Paul Weithman for
discussion and clarification about points involved in this and the preceding
footnote and for acquainting me with Father Murray's view.
n84. These two powers, the capacity for a conception of justice and the capacity
for a conception of the good, are discussed in Rawls, Political Liberalism
(cited in note 1). See especially id, lecture I, 3.2 at 19, lecture II, 7.1 at
81, lecture III, 3.3 at 103-04, lecture III, 4.1 at 108.
n85. Id, lecture VI, 4 at 223-27.
n86. Sometimes the term
"normalize" is used in this connection. For example, persons have certain fundamental
interests of a religious or philosophical kind; or else certain basic needs of
a natural kind. Again, they may have a certain typical pattern of
self-realization. A Thomist will say that we always desire above all else, even
if unknown to ourselves, the Visio Dei; a Platonist will say we strive for a
vision of the good; a Marxist will say we aim for self-realization as
n87. The idea of such a consensus is discussed at various places in Rawls,
Political Liberalism (cited in note 1). See especially id, lecture IV, and
consult the index.
n88. See id at xviii (paperback edition).
n89. See 3.2. It is sometimes asked why political liberalism puts such a high value
on political values, as if one could only do that by assessing those values in
comparison with transcendent values. But this comparison political liberalism
does not make, nor does it need to make, as is observed in the text.
n90. On this, see Michael J. Sandel, Review of Political Liberalism,
107 Harv L Rev 1765, 1778-82 (1994), and more recently Michael J. Sandel, Democracy's Discontent: America in Search
of a Public Philosophy 21-23 (Belknap 1996).
n91. Perhaps some think that a political conception is not a matter of (moral)
right and wrong. If so, that is a mistake and is simply false. Political
conceptions of justice are themselves intrinsically moral ideas, as I have
stressed from the outset. As such they are a kind of normative value. On the
other hand, some may think that the relevant political conceptions are
determined by how a people actually establish their existing institutions - the
political given, as it were, by politics. Viewed in this light, the prevalence
of slavery in 1858 implies that Lincoln's criticisms of it were moral, a matter
of right and wrong, and certainly not a matter of politics. To say that the
political is determined by a people's politics may be a possible use of the
term political. But then it ceases to be a normative idea and it is no longer
part of public reason. We must hold fast to the idea of the political as a
fundamental category and covering political conceptions of justice as intrinsic
n92. See 3.2.
n93. See Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture II, 3.2-4 at 60-62 (cited in note 1).
The main points can be set out in summary fashion as follows: (1) Reasonable
persons do not all affirm the same comprehensive doctrine. This is said to be a
consequence of the burdens of judgment. See note 95. (2) Many reasonable
doctrines are affirmed, not all of which can be true or right (as judged from
within a comprehensive doctrine). (3) It is not unreasonable to affirm any one
of the reasonable comprehensive doctrines. (4) Others who affirm reasonable
doctrines different from ours are, we grant, reasonable also, and certainly not
for that reason unreasonable. (5) In going beyond recognizing the
reasonableness of a doctrine and affirming our belief in it, we are not being
unreasonable. (6) Reasonable persons think it unreasonable to use political
power, should they possess it, to repress other doctrines that are reasonable
yet different from their own.
n94. See 6.3.
n95. These burdens are discussed in Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture II, 2
(cited in note 1). Roughly, they are sources or causes of reasonable
disagreement between reasonable and rational persons. They involve balancing
the weight of different kinds of evidence and kinds of values, and the like,
and they affect both theoretical and practical judgments.
n96. Id at xviii.
n97. Id, lecture II, 1.1 at 49-50.
n98. Id, lecture II, 2-3.4 at 54-62.
n99. Id, lecture IV, 1.2-3 at 135-37.
n100. Id, lecture IX, 2.1 at 393.
n101. Observe that neither the religious objection to democracy nor the autocratic
one could be made by public reasoning.
n102. See note 3.
n103. See Rawls, A Theory of Justice 35 (cited in note 55) (on toleration of the
intolerant); Rawls, Political Liberalism, lecture V, 6.2 at 197-99 (cited in
Prepared: January 24, 2003 - 5:02:29 PM
Edited and Updated, January 25, 2003
Philosophy 111A Page